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Grading the White Sox: Dylan Cease

Cy Cease goes from fantasy to reality

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Chicago White Sox
Well done, Dylan, well done.
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

At midseason, the SSS staff graded the 46-46 White Sox, from head of the class Dylan Cease all the way down to Dallas Keuchel. We invented a WARsss metric that could very well be just a cute way to trot out our special site grades — but really for all you know could be the product of years of research in a stats lab.

Our expanded report card will take us through everyone who saw time in uniform for the White Sox, plus some front-office types. Most of our writers will take on a couple of players, with final grades and short writeups, running through the end of November. Enjoy!

This is our last grading piece of the offseason, as Dylan Cease is indeed at the top of the class.

After the Winter Meetings, our Top 100 Prospect Countdown and Top Prospect Vote will begin!


Dylan Cease
Right-Handed Starting Pitcher
Midseason: 5.3 WARsss
Final: 6.9 WARsss

Well, when you’re wrong, you’re wrong.

Last February, I appeared on an episode of the Locked On White Sox podcast. It wound up with the title “Dylan Cease is the 2022 Breakout Candidate,” which was the main topic of discussion about a day after I let the following tweet fly:

“People are giving these takes where they’re expecting Cease to make this jump, that he’s going to be the next Top 10 or Top 15 pitcher ...” I put on the record. “But let’s see if he can get through the sixth inning more than twice in a row before we start taking it to that next level. I’m pumping the brakes a tiny bit on some of the rhetoric I’ve seen.”

When you’re wrong, you’re wrong!

We’ve always known that Cease was capable of flying this high. After a solid but inconsistent 2021, following a rough and short 2020, following an up-and-down first run in the majors, I was losing faith that Cease would be able to find the mechanical and mental consistency to both improve his command and avoid melting down with runners on base. I thought putting it all together was just too much to ask for, and fortunately, it wasn’t: It’s hard to be much wronger with a concern about consistency than when a pitcher gives up three earned runs in an 11-start span, which is what Cease did in June and July this year. It speaks to how good he was that his walk rate actually got worse from 2021 — he simply stopped letting hitters get hits or make contact on top of all those walks.

Baseball Savant

On a technical level, the conversation about Cease actually, in fact, jumping to that next level starts with his slider. It’s his best pitch — one of the best in baseball by just about any measure — and he was throwing it harder and with more confidence from Day 1 this season. Though we didn’t know it at the time, a telling moment came in one of Cease’s first spring training outings of the year, when he surprised Steve Stone in the announcers’ booth by throwing a slider (and missing) on a 3-2 count. Speaking about it from the dugout after his outing, he didn’t miss a beat saying he’d “100%” throw that pitch again. And it wasn’t just on 3-2 counts: Cease upped his slider usage by more than 10% over last season, throwing it 42% of the time — more than his fastball, even.

It was a logical adjustment. His fastball (which he threw just a touch harder than in 2021, at a sizzling 96.8 mph average) has top-of-the-charts spin and a nearly vertical spin direction, which means it has more rise than almost every other heater in the league. His command of it, however, is still not great. Cease threw it in the zone just 48% of the time, one of the lowest rates in the league, and his propensity for missing over the plate when he did put it in the zone means his fastball misses fewer bats (a 23% whiff rate, for the second consecutive year) than you’d expect from a pitch that looks like that.

Cease’s slider, meanwhile, has always been a very good pitch. From 2019-21, Cease’s slider ranked 18th in expected wOBA out of 105 starters with at least 500 sliders thrown, and his whiff rate was all the way up at eighth. Throwing it more often was a logical adjustment. At the same time, the confidence Cease articulated in spring training showed itself almost immediately in the regular season, with a 47.9% CSW in his first start of the year. Its location improved enough to make a difference, and he more consistently threw it in the places where it has the most success.

Heat maps can be misleading without additional context, but if you know the trends beneath them, they can be instructive. The progression of Cease’s slider locations against righties from 2020-22 is helpful for showing Cease’s progression, as it moves from “catching too much of the plate” to “effective but erratic” to “pounding the same spot over and over again.”

FanGraphs

The result? Cease wound up leading the majors with 301 swinging strikes on his slider, more than 70 ahead of Robbie Ray in second place. In terms of runs prevented below average, it was the single most valuable pitch in baseball — and it wasn’t even close:

Baseball Savant

Though Cease ultimately fell short of the Cy Young by quite a bit — Justin Verlander won, unanimously — it was about as successful of a season imaginable for a White Sox pitcher, and one would be hard-pressed to find an argument for another player on the roster earning a higher grade than Cease. There wasn’t a whole lot to consistently get excited for in 2022, but watching Cease take the ball every five days provided one of the few windows of joy in an otherwise morose season.

Though in retrospect, perhaps it was fitting that he fell just one out short of giving the White Sox a no-hitter for the third consecutive season, though he was equally electrifying that day in September as Lucas Giolito and Carlos Rodón were in years previous:

Cease’s final ERA of 2.20 was the ninth-lowest for a Sox starter in the live ball era, and only Chris Sale’s 2.17 (in 10 fewer innings) in 2014 has it beat in the last 50 years. Relative to league average, he was even better: Only four Sox pitchers have ever topped Cease’s 180 ERA+ from this last year, with Wilbur Wood (1971) the last to break that threshold.

Dylan’s durability shouldn’t be taken for granted, either. He’s never been on the IL and has virtually never missed a start since reaching the majors.

These moments can be fleeting. Hopefully, this is the first of many such seasons from a newly-ascendant ace. Cease might also go back to being simply good next season. In any case, we can all applaud one of the few bright spots of the 2022 White Sox for fully making good on his own potential in a way that few pitchers ever do.


2022 White Sox Grades

Dylan Cease, RHSP, 6.9
Johnny Cueto, RHSP, 6.5
Elvis Andrus, SS, 6.3
Reynaldo López, RHRP, 6.2
José Abreu, 1B, 5.8
Jimmy Lambert, RHRP, 5.2
Eloy Jiménez, “LF,” 4.9
Michael Kopech, RHSP, 4.86
Liam Hendriks, RHRP, 4.85
Danny Mendick, UTIL, 4.4
Ethan Katz, PIT COACH, 4.3
Tanner Banks, LHRP, 4.27
Andrew Vaughn, “LF,” 4.25
Davis Martin, RHSP, 4.1
Seby Zavala, C, 4.0
Luis Robert, CF, 3.7
Lance Lynn, RHSP, 3.5
Miguel Cairo, Bench Coach/MGR, 3.48
Tim Anderson, SS, 3.43
Kendall Graveman, RHRP, 3.1
Josh Harrison, 2B, 3.0
Gavin Sheets, RF-1B, 2.5
Jake Burger, 3B, 2.2
Romy González, IF, 2.0
Aaron Bummer, LHRP, 1.8
AJ Pollock, OF, 1.3
Matt Foster, RHRP, 1.2
Yoán Moncada, 3B, 0.92
Lenyn Sosa, SS, 0.85
José Ruiz, RHRP, 0.83
Mark Payton, OF, 0.6
Carlos Pérez, C, 0.399
Lucas Giolito, RHSP, 0.392
Adam Engel, OF, 0.237
Vince Velasquez, RHP, -0.4
Reese McGuire, C, -1.1
Kyle Crick, RHRP, -1.65
Joe Kelly, RHRP, -1.75
Daryl Boston, 1B Coach, -2.0
Anderson Severino, LHRP, -2.2
Jerry Reinsdorf, OWN, -2.321
Jake Diekman, LHRP, -2.366
Rick Hahn, GM, -2.401
Bennett Sousa, LHRP, -2.425
Frank Menechino, BAT COACH, -2.469
Yasmani Grandal, C/DH, -2.549
Leury García, UTIL, -2.7
Adam Haseley, OF, -3.146
Joe McEwing, 3B Coach, -3.167
Ryan Burr, RHRP, -3.4
Tony La Russa, MGR, -3.5
Dallas Keuchel, LHSP, -3.9


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